Opinion: Are anonymous apps the future of social media?

Jack Smyth
By Jack Smyth | 1 May 2014

Let me tell you a secret, something most of my colleagues (even some of my friends) don’t know about me.

I can’t even swim a full lap of the pool!

Sharing this in public gives me a thrill. This thrill is part of the appeal of the new wave of anonymous or “secret” sharing apps.

My secret is relatively safe. Imagine if I revealed something much deeper about myself or even someone else. The potential for gossip and voyeurism is the other part of anonymous sharing apps' popularity.

The growing buzz and millions in funding around anonymous sharing apps have some commentators calling this the future of social media.

I have to disagree. Anonymity is a fascinating evolution of modern social media but it’s certainly not the future of social.

The apps

Despite the long history of sharing our innermost fears, speculations and sins online (see Post Secret for one of the more popular communities), two apps have quickly captured the media’s attention – Secret and Whisper.

There are a host of anonymous or semi-anonymous sharing apps: Yik Yak, Spraffl, WUT, Social Number, Confide, Sneeky (full disclosure: I did not make any of those names up – even Spraffl).

Secret and Whisper have grabbed the headlines and prompted commentators to ponder if anonymous sharing is the future of social.

As both apps have only just become available in Australia, a quick introduction may be useful.

The apps differ from each other in small but significant ways. Your posts on Secret are initially only shared with your friends. Only if they interact with the post will it be shown to your friends’ friends. There are no names, only the degree of connection you have to the user. After moving beyond two degrees of connection location data can be seen.

Whisper takes a different tack. Everything you post on Whisper is public. Anyone using the app can see it and interact with it. Secret may have more long-term appeal as there’s greater certainty the secret you see is from someone within your network rather than a complete random.

In short, if using Secret feels like a masquerade ball, Whisper is streaking through the Grand Final.

The future

Whisper and Secret combined have secured close to $30 million in funding. Both apps are maturing quickly. Whisper’s co-founder has stated advertisers will soon be invited to participate on the platform. Hulu has already taken him up on the offer.

Yet the download figures available are lagging behind. No confirmed figures have been released by either app, but some estimate Secret has under one million downloads and Whisper is in the “single digit” millions (Forbes).

The appeal of anonymous sharing is obvious. Apart from the release or titillation that comes through sharing an intimate secret, younger audiences are again moving away from mainstream social networks colonised by their parents and scoured by employers.

A dark corner of the internet free from prying eyes is a luxury.

Despite the thrill of anonymity there are three key reasons why anonymous sharing will not replace the public, personalised sharing we use everyday.

Are these apps really anonymous?

Nothing you share on any of these anonymous apps is truly secret. It is logged somewhere with an identifiable user ID, open to a hack or breach and potentially even part of that app’s next marketing campaign.

Is anonymity sustainable? As more users join and more content flows the very real risk of defamation, bullying and libel grows.

Leading investors likes Marc Andreessen have already raised ethical concerns flow from platforms allowing or even tacitly encourage slander or character assassination through “anonymity”.

The information these apps collect make them a very tempting target for hackers. Along with potential legal drama these apps could see the funding begin to dry up as investors grow wary of their long-term viability.

The address book – not anonymity – is the future of social.

It’s undeniable social media and the way we share is changing, however anonymity is not going to be the end result.

The aggressive move by Facebook to secure WhatsApp reveals the address book is the next evolution of social. After years of mass-sharing and acquiring hundreds of friends, the trend is shifting to more intimate, localised social.

Claims anonymous apps are the future of social miss the mark. We want a smaller circle of communication; the thrill of passing secrets will not replace the need for personalised social sharing. The future of social will be more intimate but it will not be anonymous.

The implication for brands

Even if Secret, Whisper and the current posse of anonymous apps fade into niche products they still offer value for brands.

They’re another link in a chain of social platforms like Snapchat proving there’s a demand for fast, ephemeral and intimate sharing. Social’s becoming more fragmented and individualised. Brands need to begin future-proofing their social by looking at smaller networks on the rise and considering how they can engage users there. Facebook’s move to reduce organic reach for brands is further evidence the future of social will be hunting for users and their attention rather than accumulating fans or followers for long-term engagement.

Anonymous apps will most likely remain as a niche area of social. For brands willing to take the risk there’s an opportunity to reach a certain group of consumers who shy away from traditional mass-share social like Facebook. Hulu’s campaign for their new series Deadbeat on Whisper is an example.

Aside from paid advertising Whisper has suggested brands could pay to provide a high quality “image pool” for users to incorporate into their own posts.

This is another learning for brands in the next wave of social. Supplying users with their own tools to create content can be far more effective than paying to get in front of them with a straight ad. The popularity and massive revenue potential of mobile app stickers point towards real opportunities around supplying content to be used on smaller networks. It’s a cost-effective way to establish a presence in a platform without paid media options.

Jack Smyth
Social strategist
Slingshot Digital

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